Why other parties are paying attention to Elizabeth May

Recent NDP criticism of Elizabeth May shows that the party is starting to take the threat from the Greens seriously.

Some polls suggest that the federal race for bronze is tightening

Green party leader Elizabeth May makes her way from Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

If they're attacking you in politics, it means that they're paying attention.

So perhaps Elizabeth May can find a measure of success in the way that the New Democrats have recently been savaging one of her off-the-cuff proposals.

During a town hall meeting in Ashcroft, B.C., last month, the Green Party leader floated the idea of having SNC-Lavalin do some sort of  "community service" if the company is found guilty of fraud and corruption charges — helping fix the clean water problems facing many First Nations communities, for example, or tackling other persistent infrastructure problems.

The novel concept has drawn a withering response from Charlie Angus, the Timmins–James Bay MP who serves as the NDP critic for Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

"I was gobsmacked by the suggestion," Angus said in an interview this week. "It's highly problematic on so many levels."

Angus said his attacks on May are about the quality of the idea. "If you're going to blue sky and talk off the top of your head, prepare to be challenged," he said. "I don't care what party it is."

But the online exchange underlines a new reality in national politics — that the Greens have been elevated from also-rans to viable opponents.

CBC's Poll Tracker, last updated in late July, shows the NDP sitting in third place nationally in terms of voting intentions, behind the Conservatives and Liberals, with an aggregate 14.2 per cent support and just 3.3 points ahead of the Greens.

However, some individual polls suggest that the race for bronze is tightening.

A Mainstreet Research survey released earlier this week had the Greens and NDP tied at 11 per cent support. (It also showed the Liberals with a narrow 0.4 per cent advantage over the Tories — 34.5 per cent to 34.1 per cent.)

Considering the long-term trend

Either way, the longer term trend should be of concern to Jagmeet Singh and his fellow New Democrats: The CBC tracker shows that Green support has grown by 7.5 points nationally since the last election, while the NDP vote has dropped by 5.5 points. 

In Quebec, where the NDP currently holds 15 seats, the two parties are basically tied in the polls, with 9.4 per cent support for the New Democrats versus 9.2 per cent for the Greens. 

In British Columbia, which accounts for 13 of the NDP's 41 seats in Parliament, May's party has a slim lead: 19.1 per cent compared to 17.8 per cent for Singh.

Former NDP leader Tom Mulcair has been publicly warning the party not to take its position in the House — or in the national political consciousness — for granted.

"Progressives are looking for a home on environmental issues," the ex-MP turned university professor told CTV earlier this year. "I think that Canadians might just send enough of a contingent of Green Party MPs to Ottawa this time to hold whoever would form the government … hold their feet to the fire on these environmental issues."

The Green Party of Canada doubled its seat count in the House of Commons earlier this year after Paul Manly won a byelection in the B.C. riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith in May. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Karl Bélanger, a former principal secretary to Mulcair and the national director of the NDP, says he's not sure that the Greens pose a real threat, as seat projections show them making a modest gain from their current pair of MPs. But there is a danger in the growing "narrative" in the media that has the two leftist parties competing for third place, he said.

"I'd advise the NDP to keep Jagmeet Singh going after Justin Trudeau, and let other people take on Elizabeth May," said Bélanger. "Because the truth is that the Greens are getting votes from all political parties, not just the NDP."

'Even more negative'

Lori Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University's School of Public Administration, points out that it's still early to be writing off Singh, noting that heading into the 2015 election, polls suggested that Justin Trudeau's Liberals were going to finish second or third, behind Mulcair's NDP.

But there is a sense, she said, that a number of factors are aligning in favour of May this time around, including rising concern about climate change and strong showings by the Greens in provincial votes in Prince Edward Island and B.C

"I think that voters are looking for something different," said Turnbull.

What people are likely to get during the fall campaign, however, will seem awfully familiar.

"This election is going to be even more negative than the norm," said Turnbull. "Every party is a little bit nervous in terms of holding onto their core support, let alone getting more votes.

"And the silent issue is whether people are going to come out at all."

The Green Party is clearly girding for a tougher campaign. They hired Warren Kinsella, a political consultant who forged his reputation as a Chrétien-era Liberal pitbull, to set up a war room. He has since stepped back, but one of his colleagues, Tom Henheffer, will be running what the party is delicately calling its "rapid response team."

John Chenery, communications director for the Greens, says things have changed since the party added its second MP, Paul Manly, in a May byelection.

"We noticed that the intensity and severity of the attacks started to ramp up," he said. "I think the other parties were surprised that we won — and how easily."

The response team will deal with the pointed criticism as the campaign goes forward, Chenery said, but using facts and figures rather than counterpunches.

"We're not going to fight back," he said. "That's not the way we do politics."


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

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